Royal Street (Sentinels of New Orleans #1)
by Suzanne Johnson
Tor Books (2012)
I wanted to read and review this novel in time for last month's Urban Fantasy Marathon, but it just wasn't in the cards. Suzanne Johnson did, however, offer a funguest post for the marathon. So, now that I've had a chance to read Suzanne's debut novel, did it meet my expectations?
Drusilla Jaco (call her DJ), a low-level wizard in New Orleans, has her world turned upside-down almost literally when Hurricane Katrina devastates the region. While her own house is spared the harshest destruction lowered on the city, her mentor Gerald's home is practically leveled and the senior sentinel has disappeared. From there, DJ's superiors send her back into New Orleans to not only investigate Gerald's fate, but help seal numerous openings into the Beyond that have appeared due in part to Hurricane Katrina. Once back, she must navigate through a city already brought to its knees, aided by a fellow sentinel named Alex who believes Gerald is alive and responsible for the buildings tensions between the wizards council and the preternatural forces in the Beyond.
This book further proves my half-witted theory that New Orleans is the third most popular U.S. city in urban fantasy, right behind New York and L.A. Royal Street might also be the UF novel I've read thus far that's made the city feel the most tangible. Maybe it's by setting the novel in the middle of the city's most horrendous disaster. I can still remember seeing those photos and aerial coverage on the six o'clock news the day after Katrina. It was nearly as surreal as watching the second Twin Tower fall live on TV. It never felt like human tragedy was being exploited in a tactless manner, in fact, there were a couple little moments in the book that showed that same old magic unique to the city that no disaster will take away.
As for the story, it was a bit boggy in sections for me, mainly because I felt the subplot of DJ's latent feelings towards Alex and his brother, Jake, was distracting from the main storyline, and not just distracting but a bit meandering at times, too. I was really hard to get a beat on where DJ's head was at. Good chemistry among characters aside from that, though. What really held me through the novel was the lingering question DJ had to deal with regarding her mentor's past antagonism towards the wizard council and the possibility that he was working against them. Throw in a cast of intriguing villains stepping out of the beyond, including Jean Lafitte, notorious pirate; Marie Laveau, a malevolent voodoo priestess; and Baron Semedi, a Haitian voodoo god--even Louis Armstrong (not a villain) makes a cameo appearance in the book. Any one of those three would have made for a great lead villain in the novel, but with the three it really felt like something epic was being built up.
Aside from sexual tension aspect of DJ's relationship with Alex, which I found didn't resonate all that well, their contentious banter and interactions were very fun and engaging, and it only got better as the action built up and a bit of one-upsmanship simmered between them. Throw in the periodically revealed secrets they kept from each other, they made a good duo, one I hope can continue in the sequel, River Road, which I think it due out in 2013. While it wasn't a runaway hit, the minor annoyances were far outweighed by a fantastic setting, deep and vibrant history with characters and plot, and great chemistry between DJ and Alex.